Substance abuse is cutting Yukoners’ lives short: Hanley

Yukon's chief medical officer wants residents to take stock of their propensity to drink and smoke. Dr. Brendan Hanley released the Yukon Health Status Report for 2015 yesterday, which he describes as "far from reassuring.

Yukon’s chief medical officer wants residents to take stock of their propensity to drink and smoke.

Dr. Brendan Hanley released the Yukon Health Status Report for 2015 yesterday, which he describes as “far from reassuring.”

The report outlines that Yukoners live around four years less than the average Canadian. They also tend to drink more, smoke more and injure themselves more, which itself can be linked to substance use.

“The average Yukoner needs to be thinking about the insidiousness of alcohol and addictions and the many faces of drug use and substance use,” Hanley said.

“It’s not just the stereotypical ‘down-and-out’ drunks that we’re talking about, but people that we all know and are familiar with in our everyday lives.”

Among the specific concerns highlighted in the report is youth. In the Yukon, 14.8 per cent of Yukon youth reported daily or occasional smoking, compared with a rate across Canada of 8.3 per cent.

“Certainly I am concerned about youth. This is another important time of brain growth,” he said, noting new research in this area points to high vulnerability of the brain during these years.

“Such a relatively blithe use of cannabis, for instance, where there’s no realization that this may affect learning, functioning and productivity, is a problem,” Hanley said.

The report outlines the vulnerability of the developing brain that begins in utero and remains until early adulthood.

As for the worst substance offender, alcohol, the report points out that Yukon had the second-highest per capita sales of alcoholic beverages in the country in 2013-14, at $1,145 per person, compared to $696 nationally.

Rates of heavy drinking among Yukoners are significantly higher than the national average, and Yukon women were about twice as likely to report monthly heavy drinking as women in Canada overall.

Hanley is especially concerned about this, given women’s increased susceptibility to alcohol’s intoxication and its impact on the liver. There’s also a link between alcohol and breast cancer, which shows up at even low to moderate use, Hanley said.

Among Yukon’s First Nations adults, 45 per cent reported heavy drinking according to an older 2008-09 study. Notably, 35 per cent of Yukon First Nation adult respondents did not drink at all, 15 per cent higher than the Canadian national average, indicating the First Nation population is polarized.

The report goes through a long list of problems associated with substance use: mental health problems, chronic diseases like heart and respiratory disease and cancers, sexually transmitted infections and injury-related hospital visits. A whopping 31 per cent of collisions that resulted in serious injury in Yukon between 2001 and 2010 involved alcohol.

All of this damage is costing taxpayers money: a gross estimation of the direct and indirect costs of substance use disorders in the Yukon sits at around $54 million in 2014 dollars.

Hanley is hopeful that policy change like drink labelling for standardized drinks can help shift the change in culture as is slowly happening with tobacco use.

“I think we can go to that direction with alcohol. As in, how much alcohol is in this wine and what is the recommended daily limit?” he said.

He noted even a small shift in consumption can do a lot to reduce the many downsteam effects of alcohol use.

The report notes that hiking the price of cheap liquor like cooking sherry has proven successful in other jurisdictions like British Columbia.

Hanley added that ongoing work towards harm reduction can keep severely addicted individuals from turning to damaging substitutes like mouthwash and hand sanitizer.

The medical officer would like to see improvements on integrated treatments, as mental health problems and addictions, for instance, are often linked, but treatment remains disjointed.

Above all, he said, “We are opening a difficult conversation.”

But being aware of how substance abuse can shorten your lifespan is a good place to start, he said.

Contact Lauren kaljur at

lauren.kaljur@yukon-news.com

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